*****ASTEROID-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!*****
Mise en Scène.
Cowritten by Jennifer Elise Cox (“Jan” from the “Brady Bunch” movies), Michael Stoyanov, Sam Pancake, costar Kali Rocha and director Jack Plotnick, “Space Station 76” (2014) piqued my interest with what appeared to be a spoof of 1970s disco-era science fiction TV shows, specifically the aesthetics of “Space: 1999” (1975-1977), and Filmation’s Saturday morning kid-vid TV shows, “Space Academy” (1977), which begat “Jason of Star Command” a year later. There also appeared to be trace elements of 1978’s “Battlestar Galactica” and 1979’s “Buck Rogers” in there, as well.
The brightly lit, retro-futuristic moon bases, starships and space stations of those old TV shows were usually somewhat monochromatic (depressingly so, at times) and the gadgets were usually extrapolations of 1970s technology, such as bulky cathode-ray monitors, awkward-sized, pre-smartphone devices and a cute robot which typically looked and sounded like Remco’s Mister Brain mated with a Speak & Spell. Heterosexual alpha males were usually in charge of these imaginary space outposts, and their crews were largely caucasian. These fictitious futures, while appearing sleek & shiny, seemed to offer little social advancement from 1970s status quo. Kids didn’t seem to care, of course, because the robots and spaceships offered great toy licensing opportunities… something George Lucas would soon exploit with his own 1977 game-changer “Star Wars”. Despite the limitations of mid-1970s sci-fi, these futures were generally optimistic, at least in their projections of humanity’s ambitious future in space.
Perversely, Jack Plotnik’s “Space Station 76” shoots a lot of those old sci-fi conventions straight to hell. Plotnik and company present a picture perfect retro-future which gamely resembles those mid-1970s space TV shows, but is populated with characters who’d be much more at home in the 1970s San Fernando valley of Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” (1997).
The result in a bizarre, R-rated mishmash of 1970s tropes and genres that don’t so much fit, but rather collide with each other…
“Space Station 76” (2014)
The movie opens with a narration by Liv Tyler setting the table for us; we’re about to see a future that never was–a future extrapolated from 1970s sensibilities onward. We then cut to a sleek space shuttle right out of Star Trek arriving to dock with a suitably ’70s vision of a giant space refueling station; “Space Station Omega 76.” We see the station’s commander, Captain Glenn Terry (Patrick Wilson) nervously eyeing the incoming shuttle. He looks as if he is about to fire on the ship with his thumb poised over a knob, and a computerized countdown. At zero, he pulls the knob out of the control panel to light his cigarette–yes, for those born in modern times? Your average 1970s car, including family station wagons, came with built-in knob lighters that you pulled from the dashboard to light your cigarette while driving.
Yes, the 1970s were utterly insane, folks. Great music and movies, but utterly insane.
Note: To be honest, I don’t know if Liv Tyler’s opening narration helped or not. It tells us this isn’t a ‘real’ future, but the imagery alone already does a suitable job of that. It’s more interesting that the song played during the narration is from 1970s rocker Todd Rudgren, who is, incidentally, the stepfather of Liv Tyler; her mother married Rundgren after leaving Steve Tyler. There are tons of ’70s tunes played throughout the movie, which almost feels a bit too on the nose; I think some kind of generic ‘space disco’ music inspired by those TV shows from that era might’ve worked just as well (or better), and without the rights issues.
Arriving from the shuttle is the station’s new First Officer, Jessica Marlowe (Liv Tyler) who is bright, young and eager to please in her new post. Undergoing a particularly invasive ‘routine’ physical for her new posting. We learn from a very tactless medical computer that Marlowe can’t bear children (which meant a woman wasn’t ‘whole’ in the primitive 1970s). Despite the humiliating exam, Marlowe looks forward to her new post, though she is curious as to why her predecessor, Daniel (Matthew Morrison) left so abruptly. After settling in, she checks in with her father via an awkward Skype call on a black & white cathode-ray monitor right out of “Space: 1999.”
Note: In a very clever in-joke, Jessica’s dad–who can’t seem to get the hang of videoconferencing–is played by none other than “2001: A Space Odyssey” star, Keir Dullea.
Reporting to the bridge, Jessica meets her unpleasant, chain-smoking commander. They don’t exactly hit it off, as he seems nervous and defensive regarding Daniel’s departure. Glenn offers contradictory reasons for Daniel’s absence, and Jessica kindly drops the matter. It doesn’t help that Glenn treats Jessica with the sort of condescension and apprehension one might have for a trained dog driving their car. Despite the captain’s clear misogyny and taunts about ‘women’s work,’ etc, Jessica keeps her cool and tries to focus on the job…which seems to consist of sitting in a chair at a control panel, and looking out of a window…
Note: Part of the joke is that this ‘future’ has absolutely no hint of the social progress and changes made since the 1970s. It’s a gag that is mined for all its worth, sometimes tediously so. Making Jessica unable to bear children was a step too far, really; as she simply could’ve been someone who prioritized career over family. Making Jessica a ‘career-first’ woman might’ve been ‘trailblazing’ enough for this retro-movie. Instead, she’s given the 1970s ‘stigma’ of being ‘barren’ (a term used a LOT in those days).
We also meet Sunshine (Kylie Rogers), the station’s resident sad-faced moppet and future candidate for Child Protective Services. We’re first introduced to Sunshine as she’s roller-skating down the gleaming white corridors of the station, marking the walls with her crayon. She comes across and immediately befriends new First Officer Jessica.
Note: Sunshine’s roller-skates are, of course, period-accurate to the 1970s, as are most of the civilian clothing, hairstyles and other details of the movie; a constant reiteration that is a future based from the 1970s. Many sci-fi TV shows/movies are often immediately traceable to their eras by such dead giveaways as slang, hairdos, casual wear, props, product placements or music. This can arguably be traced to a failure of imagination and/or a desire to appeal to ‘modern’ audiences… a strategy that almost always backfires in sci-fi; a genre that is traditionally forward thinking, by design. Conversely, “Space Station 76” revels in its period anachronisms–they’re the movie’s raison d’être.
Sunshine, unfortunately is under the ‘care’ of her selfish, catty mother Misty (Marisa Coughlan), who is one valium shy of being a character from “Valley of the Dolls.” Misty is supposed to typify the free-wheeling, ‘cool’ mothers of 1970s California, who were all about themselves and who saw children as more of a fashion accessory than a new life solely dependent upon them for guidance. Misty is also the most obnoxious character in a movie filled with obnoxious characters. When she meets Jessica, there’s an immediate competitiveness and passive/aggressiveness between them as Misty plays the alternating roles of friendly neighbor, guru, and mean girl–usually in the same sentence. To her credit, Marisa Coughlan does a terrific job in creating such an instantly unlikable, toxic character–but she’s turned it up so high at times that we barely catch our breath before she gives us all new reasons to hate her.
Note: I certainly get that the writers intend for “Space Station 76” to be a dark comedy of manners; a movie that wallows in making its characters (and by extension its audience) uncomfortable–much like Martin Scorsese’s “King of Comedy” (1983) but without Scorsese’s skillset. I certainly appreciate that ambition, but the pitch-black humor doesn’t resonate, largely because the characters speak in an unpleasantly interrupting rhythm–not the smooth overlaps of a Robert Altman comedy, but more of a verbal cacophony.
Audience surrogate Jessica later meets Ted (Matt Bomer), the miserable ship’s mechanic who has the bad fortune to be stuck in a loveless marriage to Misty, who’s made it clear that Ted is not a priority in her self-centered existence. Ted also has a mechanical prosthetic hand that looks like a bad prototype for a Nintendo Power-Glove, and he has to recharge the thing every night. Poor shat-upon Ted’s life is made miserable from all sides. The captain gives Ted hell in order to cover his own attraction to him, his wife hates his guts, and his dude-bro best friend Steve (Jerry O’Connell)–who screws everything with XX chromosomes–is secretly having an affair with Misty (who is having many other affairs as well). Affection-starved Ted sometimes gets lost in fantasies about a beautiful Playboy Playmate-looking ‘space angel’ outside his window, or even bending a sympathetic ear. Cue Jessica, who embodies everything that Ted isn’t getting in his crappy life…
Note: One of the recurring themes of the movie is the juxtaposition of anything-goes heterosexuality with chastely closeted homosexuality. Characters like Misty and Steve revel in their ‘natural’ sexual appetites, while the fearful self-loathing captain is forced into a life of solitude and repeated (deeply unfunny) suicide attempts. Cast against type, heterosexual Ted is played by openly gay actor Matt Bomer while suppressed gay captain Glenn is played by straight actor Patrick Wilson. Director Jack Plotnick is openly gay as well, and is clearly making a statement on the thoughtless gay-shaming that so often occurred in 1970s media (and even now). The shows that the film parodies (“Space: 1999,” et al) never even acknowledged differing sexualities, let alone portrayed them. This lack of LGBTQ+ representation was a problem even with more ‘progressive’ sci-fi shows like Star Trek, which only featured its first openly gay characters as recently as 2017, with “Star Trek: Discovery.”
Of course, miserable Ted and put-upon Jessica gravitate towards each other, with incidental meetings around the ship in the arboretum (where Jessica keeps mum on Ted’s growing pot stash), and playing a friendly game of “Asteroids” on a wall-screen with crude, 8-bit, 2D monochrome graphics on a wall-sized screen (like the ‘advanced’ gaming console from 1973’s “Soylent Green” which takes place this year, 2022). Sunshine welcomes Jessica into her life, but Misty–despite her own indiscretions–shoots down this interloper’s presence in her ‘happy home’ (*coughs*) by bad-mouthing Jessica behind her back.
Note: At this point, the movie has almost nothing whatsoever to do with science-fiction; even if the use of outer space as metaphor for the characters’ isolation is obvious. The well-crafted period interiors of the space station, as well as the wonderfully clunky retro-technology, are so nicely executed that they feel largely wasted on what is more a spoof of 1970s melodrama than retro sci-fi TV shows/movies. I wish the movie was more in keeping with the dated sci-fi sensibilities/values of those shows (see: “Galaxy Quest”), and not just their trappings.
Catching up with other characters on the station, resident douchebag Steve barely tends to his alcoholic wife Donna (Kali Rocha) and their baby before dressing up in his ugliest leisure wear (right out of a 1977 Sears catalog) for a night of skirt-chasing on the ship. Their cabin is decorated in hideously 1970s-appropriate blue & floral wallpaper.
We later see Misty in therapy with “Dr. Bot” (voice of Michael Stoyanov); something that looks like an old Coleco toy, with clunky program tapes activated by patient trigger words. Misty, of course, worships the device as her savior and only confidante, which is sadly true for her, since Misty’s overbearing narcissism precludes any authentic emotional attachments to other human beings, including her daughter Sunshine, whom she sees more as a rival than anything else.
There are comic subplots littered throughout, such as Jessica digging into the background of her predecessor Daniel, and poor Sunshine’s pet gerbils, whose mother continually eats the heads off of her young–a gag reflecting toxic motherhood.
We also see Ted and Jessica’s relationship slowly warming as well, as his malfunctioning robotic hand accidentally grabs her breast in a vise-like grip–causing Jessica a bit of agony before he’s able to deactivate it.
The awkwardness shifts into overdrive as we follow the captain through various suicide attempts, and later in an unpleasant encounter with little Sunshine, who does her sugary-sweet best to befriend the surly commanding officer. Chain-smoking Glenn does everything short of backhanding the child in order to shake her laser-like focus on his clear discomfort. She eventually leaves, and Glenn is left alone once again to his favorite pastime of wallowing in misery–like everyone else on the station.
Note: This middle act of the movie really lags. There is no story, per se; just a series of dark-humor vignettes stitched together with little sense of timing or momentum. There is almost no ticking clock to any of these events, no engine to drive a plot along, save for a close encounter with an asteroid–which none of the utterly self-absorbed characters even take notice of until it is nearly too late. Yes, I get that the languid pacing is by design to reflect 1970s introspectiveness, but it’s such a waste of great retro-period trappings. I can imagine all of these gadgets and sets used in a far more energetic (and genuinely funny) sci-fi comedy.
After being ordered by his authorities to shape up, Glenn goes to see Dr. Bot, and within minutes of hearing his own words parroted back to him by the simple, unintelligent device, he begins to realize it’s all a cosmic joke. Glenn’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic, as he begins playing idly with the ship’s power controls. When once again prodded by the snooping Jessica on exactly why her predecessor resigned, the captain grabs the station’s intercom mic to reassure everyone that Daniel had a “family emergency”, which serves to reaffirm Glenn’s insecurity and defensiveness.
Note: Granted, this isn’t exactly Star Trek, but why Jessica didn’t simply relieve Captain Terry of duty is beyond me.
Unable to shut out his longing for Daniel any longer, the captain activates his ‘holo-phone’ and catches Daniel aboard his new posting on a starship, just out of the shower. Still wet, and clad only in a towel, the openly-gay Daniel confronts his closeted ex-lover and former commanding officer. Lacking his former fling’s self-confidence, Glenn squirms as he sheepishly takes Daniel’s monologuing rebuke of him–because he’s recording their conversation in order to carefully re-edit Daniel’s words into a pickup line, which he’ll use to pleasure himself with afterward.
If this movie’s humor were any darker, it’d be a black hole.
Note: The rainbow effect of the hologram-call reflects the same prismatic effects of 1970s laser holography, which also gave off rainbow coloring (rainbows are also, of course, the colors on the Pride flag). Such holography was first used for a science fiction film in 1976’s landmark dystopia movie, “Logan’s Run”, based on the book by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson.
Against all of their wills, the characters are reminded of the station’s annual Christmas Party, which feels like a recipe for disaster, given the various meltdown points each of the characters are rapidly approaching. Noticing Jessica sitting with her husband Ted, Misty suggests playing a “Secrets” game where each player is compelled to reveal a personal secret. During the course of the game, Jessica exposes the captain’s homosexuality; “You’re a gay man!” she screams, desperate for him to release his own self-loathing. In turn, Misty comes very close to exposing Jessica’s inability to bear children. As the party rapidly goes to hell, a large asteroid has a grazing encounter with the station’s hull–completely obliterating the shuttle which brought Jessica, stranding the group together aboard the station.
Note: The party scene of the movie reminded me of the party games scenes from 1970’s “Boys in the Band” and the climax of Ang Lee’s 1970s period drama, “The Ice Storm” (1997); both movies saw swinging 1970s partiers participating in dangerously personal party games which exposed deep secrets, yet also served as cathartic releases for the characters’ pent-up frustrations with each other.
Following in the disastrous wake of both the asteroid collision and Christmas Party, we see life returning to a new normal. Jessica and Ted begin seeing each other more openly, the now-outed captain locks eyes with an attractive male stranger, and little moppet Sunshine playfully turns off the gravity in her quarters (as she and daddy Ted sometimes do) while gazing out her window at the nearby asteroids…
Summing It Up.
To their credit, Plotnik and his production design team do a masterful job of capturing the feel of mid-1970s sci-fi TV shows, but populate their universe with obnoxious, unpleasant characters who are a real chore to spend time with, even if only for 93 minutes. With such an ingenious production design, a part of me wishes that all involved could’ve spent their obvious talents on a more light-hearted, “Galaxy Quest” spoof instead of this bizarre mashup of Saturday morning sci-fi TV and Paul Thomas Anderson-style ennui. “Space Station 76” is the cinematic equivalent of a weekend dad who’d rather be reading porn on the crapper instead of being dragged to Tomorrowland by his kid.
That’s not to say “Space Station 76” doesn’t work at all. The cast throw their backs into it, and there are a few grim chuckles to be had with the movie’s uncompromisingly morose tone. Unfortunately, such moments are often interrupted by characters whose annoyingly passive/aggressive dialogue sounds as welcoming as a leaf-blower on an early Sunday morning; no one talks to anyone in this movie…they all talk over each other. After about 30 minutes of these hit-and-run conversations, your brain begins to physically hurt, but the movie takes sadistic pleasure in our discomfort.
The movie’s almost gleeful obnoxiousness soon becomes time-dilating tedium after awhile, yet there are flashes of perverse brilliance as well. I can’t enthusiastically recommend “Space Station 76”, but I can’t entirely dismiss it, either.
Where to Watch.
“Space Station 76” is available to rent/buy/stream on PrimeVideo, iTunes, VUDU and YouTube (prices vary). The movie can also be purchased on BluRay/DVD from Amazon.com as well. The current number of COVID-19 related deaths in the United States is over 842,000 (and over 5.5 million worldwide) as of this writing, so please wear masks (N-95/KN-95 masks are optimal), practice safe-distancing and get vaccinated as soon as possible to minimize infections and protect your loved ones (booster shots are available everywhere). There is also the highly contagious Omicron variant to safeguard for as well, so please continue to mask up in public spaces for others’ sake as well as your own.
Take care and be safe!